City should assess
private-land rock dangers


Residents who live at the foot of mountains are increasingly concerned about the risk of rock slides.

If a boulder falls on a house, does it make a sound lawsuit? That question should concern owners of homes perched along Hawaii's steep mountainsides overlooking other homes. However, government agencies may not be entirely free of potential liability and should assist in preventing rockslides on private as well as public land that threaten public safety.

The concerns have escalated since the Aug. 9 death of 26-year-old Dana Onishi from a boulder that fell onto the Onishi home in Nuuanu. Her father, Patrick Onishi, has said the family was not interested in suing the owners of the land where the boulder originated.

The argument that fallen boulders are "acts of God" is unlikely to be accepted in a legal case. Such an act usually refers to a natural disaster such as an earthquake, flood, hurricane, volcanic eruption or extraordinary storm. Most insurance companies do not include such disasters as insurable occurrences.

A property owner is considered negligent by failing to take necessary precautions against foreseeable natural conditions. However, the city may share in any liability because it issues building permits following inspections of the land by soil engineers. Some Moanalua Valley residents are worried that construction of a house on the mountainside above their homes may dislodge a boulder, although the city has issued a permit.

The Oahu Civil Defense agency went door to door last week in Nuuanu warning residents about another boulder that, if dislodged, could fall near the Onishi home. Doug Aton, the Civil Defense administrator, said that was all the city can do because "the mitigation of the problem lies with the private property owner."

The owner of the Pacific Heights property where the boulder sits hired a geologist who reported that the boulder was "in a very precarious position" and could "cause damage to the houses and people below" if it became dislodged.

Steven Hisaka, the property owner's attorney, said, "I think from a practical standpoint, this is a public safety issue, and government has to take a different approach." Just as the fire department tries to prevent a house fire from spreading to other homes, he said, the city should help prevent a boulder from causing damage to nearby properties.

The analogy is imprecise, but the city should take some responsibility for assuring public safety beyond handing out warning fliers. That should consist of making assessments of potential rockslide areas on private land -- such as the assessment ordered by Hisaka's client -- and requiring homeowners to eliminate dangerous conditions.


Published by Oahu Publications Inc., a subsidiary of Black Press.

Don Kendall, Publisher

Frank Bridgewater, Editor 529-4791;
Michael Rovner,
Assistant Editor 529-4768;
Lucy Young-Oda, Assistant Editor 529-4762;

Mary Poole, Editorial Page Editor, 529-4790;
John Flanagan, Contributing Editor 294-3533;

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